When winter hits in earnest, farming in spring, summer, and fall sure seems easy. Farming in winter is just…hard!
Freezing temps and snow cover change everything on our farm. Rather than have our goats and sheep graze our pastures—and feed themselves—we are feeding them in the barn. In fact, the goats and sheep have been ensconced in the barn since November and will stay there until spring.
Colder temps mean waterers and waterlines can and will freeze. Laying hens, cooped up and cold, lay fewer eggs but eat more feed to stay warm. They may even go a little stir crazy during the shorter days and longer nights.
And then there’s us farmers, not getting any younger and feeling that cold in our bones—morning, noon, and night.
While the sun shone from May to September, we mowed, raked, baled, and wrapped about 175 round bales. Like putting money in the bank for hard times, summer is for saving up bounty.
Now that it is winter, we are feeding out one bale per day to the goats and sheep. Using a skid steer with a fun grabbing device (we call it “Mr. Pincher”), we bring the bale from storage to the front of the barn. There, we cut open and remove the plastic wrap and place the bale on our bale unloader, making sure it will “unwind” in the right direction. This machine, with 4 rollers, allows us to “feed out” the bale to our goats and sheep in just a few minutes flat.
When the temperatures really drop, water becomes one of the hardest things to manage. With about 180 goats and sheep in a relatively closed-up barn, temperatures outside must dip pretty low for an extended period of time before water inside starts to freeze. In fact, outdoor temps can get to 20° or even 15° before it drops below 32° in the barn. It is cozy!
But there are plenty of days (sometimes up to a week!), where the temperature in the barn dips below freezing. In our earlier days on the farm, we filled 5-gallon buckets with water and hauled them by hand back to the animals. This soon became unacceptable. (I’m not sure how many 5-gallon buckets of water you’ve hauled in your life, but I’ll tell you this: It gets old, quick!)
We have since learned that in our set-up, the key to keeping animals watered is to keep water moving. We have a trough that runs nearly the length of the barn, supplied with water from our spring-fed pond up the hill. The line that feeds the barn is buried deep enough not to freeze, but water in the barn must keep moving. We keep water running at a low trickle through the trough all winter long and everyone is happy.
I am almost embarrassed to admit it took us the longest time to figure out how to keep the chickens watered. The chickens do not have access to the water trough, but rather have their own waterer that would freeze on a regular basis. We tried various heated waterers, a heated garden hose, even swapping waterers out and thawing them in our bathtub. (I do NOT recommend!) We eventually landed on a heated dog waterer that has not disappointed us…yet.
And then there are the winter storms and their unique challenges. As a rule, we keep equipment and vehicles under cover to avoid getting them buried in snow or encased in ice. But every snowstorm has us doing lots of extra work clearing and removing snow before we can feed animals. Such is life in Central New York!
Farming in winter is certainly not for the faint of heart, but preparedness and good planning make all the difference. We have learned a lot over the years, largely through trial and error, and have looked for ways to make things easier on the two of us. Thankfully, I find too much pleasure feeding the woodstove in the house and watching the snow fly outside to complain about winter!